Thursday, May 29, 2008

The Color of Saffron

I often come across the words ‘saffron robes’ being used to describe monk’s attire. A report about the recent disturbances in Burma described the monks as “a saffron clad army of peace.” The writer could not have seen the attached photo which showed monks clad in maroon. Let’s just straighten a few things out. The English word saffron comes from the Arabic sa’faran and is used as the name of the plant Corous sativus and for a bright orange/yellow color the same as or similar to the color derived from the stigmas of this plant. Saffron was unknown to the Buddha’s India, growing only in Persia at that time. The Pali/Sanskrit word for saffron, kunkuma, does not occur anywhere in the Pali Tipitaka. Saffron was imported into northern India in later centuries but never used to dye cloth. It was used in medicine, to flavor and color food but it has never been used as a fabric dye because it washes out after the third or fourth wash. A further reason why it has never been used to dye monks’ robes or any other cloth is its expense. In Singapore today an ounce of saffron sells for a little less than an ounce of gold. It was even more expensive in ancient times. City monks in Thailand often wear robes that could well be described as saffron-colored although safety-helmet orange would be a more accurate description. But just as many monks and especially forest monks wear robes of a soft brown color. Monks’ robes in Burma are uniformly purple/brown and in Sri Lankan they range from Communist Party red to dark brown. If Tibetan monks’ robes were to be given a botanical association it would have to be beetroot. So how has saffron come to be so associated with Buddhist monk’s robes?


Gerard Ling said...

Saffron here could refer to the colour of dried saffron stigmas which are a red-brownish colour, very similar to maroon. Available in threads and powder, saffron should be in this form when it was first introduced into South Asia. South Asians should be more familiar with saffron as the red-brownish dried stigma instead of the purple saffron flower. Saffron colour robes is definitely an association used by later generations to link it to the valuable spice, similar to how some of us today associate the blue use by Tiffany & Co. to mean romance and call it Tiffany Blue.

Justin Choo said...


I read somewhere the dye used came from jackfruit stems/leaves.

desertboot said...

Botanical associations, and a not-so-random connection: Turmeric (Curcuma longa), known as 'haldi' in India, has long been used as an edible rhizome, a food colouring agent and/or spice, and also an excellent antiseptic -- the last, lending it further uses in traditional medicine and cosmetics. In conjunction with vermilion powder, turmeric powder enjoys ritualistic associations, in Hinduism especially. Turmeric, moreover, serves also as a readily available fabric dye. The resulting yellow, however, is known to be inconsistent. Db

Volker said...

Also Gamboge was used for colouring of monks´ robes yellow. This dye is derived from the latex of certain Garcinia species (false mangosteens), family Guttiferae.